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Ironic Reversal


Explanations > Theories > Ironic Reversal

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



When we are trying to avoid doing, saying or thinking about something, we often find that this is impossible. 

This is because of the 'Catch 22' situation that in order to avoid thinking about something, we need to know what we are trying to avoid and hence we have to think about it. The situation then gets worse as our failure to succeed causes us to work harder at the task.

The thought can also act as a block against other thoughts. When searching for a word for a particular situation, the more available words that pop into our minds first become more available and consequently keep coming back when we try to think of other words.

As we get worn out by this fruitless task, our ability to control the situation weakens, we get stuck in the cycle and thinking can easily turn into saying and doing. Repetition also tends to strengthen our belief in what we are thinking, as in Mere Exposure Theory.

This spiral can easily fall into obsessive-compulsive behaviors and many psychological disorders include an inability to stop thinking about something uncomfortable.


Wegner and associates asked people not to mention a word and then talked to them giving them cues that would trigger the participants into saying the words. When the participants were put into a higher-stress situation, then mentioned the words far more often.


Hypnotists use this in phrases like 'You may notice how, as your eyes close, your hand gets heavier and you sink into a deep trance.'

When you are trying to solve a crossword puzzle or quiz question, even though your first idea is not right, it gets in the way of you finding the correct answer.

Telling children not to drop a plate makes them think about dropping it, thus taking them a step closer to the act!

So what?

Using it

If you want someone to think about something, talk about it (or even tell them not to do/say/think about it). To accentuate the effect, get them cognitively overloaded and stressed beforehand.


The way out of the trap is not to try. It's like going to sleep: the more you try, the more you can't. The trick is to not be bothered about it, reducing the stress.

See also

Availability Heuristic, Fundamental Attribution Error, Mere Exposure Theory, Stereotypes


Wegner (1994)


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